Most of the time when you interview a director, you're talking with them about their latest film; interviewing Mike Binder about The Search for John Gissing, a comedy about corporate backstabbing as an American executive (Binder) arrives with his reluctant wife (Janeane Garofalo) in London to smooth over a multinational merger with soon-to-be-outcast fellow executive John Gissing (Alan Rickman) sabotaging his every move, is a different story. It's not a recent film -- it was shot in early 2001, before Binder released The Upside of Anger or Reign Over Me -- but it's just coming to DVD now; the other thing is that The Search for John Gissing is, in fact, Binder's movie -- he's releasing it himself, selling it via the website www.thefreebird.com, and doing so without any studio involvement. Binder spoke with Cinematical about making The Search for John Gissing, working with star Alan Rickman, The Search for John Gissing's long road to release and his dream of what he calls "a big-ass pipeline" that gets his movies directly into the hands of fans.
Cinematical: The Search for John Gissing has taken a little while to get out there; let's talk about that gap between the making of the film and it being available.
Mike Binder: Well, it's a long story, but what happened was: I made the movie, and I cobbled together the money – I put up a lot of my own money, and some family and friends money, and I really just made it on the cheap. And we started playing it, and we got in a lot of festivals, and it played really well to audiences – but the only deals we could get were from people who wanted to own it. Forever. For doing nothing. And I also started, it was the type of thing where I felt, 'Boy, if I could go back in there for two more weeks, I could really open this up a little, do a little more work to it." So I thought I was going to do that, and I did some re-writing, and I was going to do two more weeks of shooting., and then I started doing The Mind of the Married Man; and then I started planning to the other two weeks of shooting, and I got the second series of The Mind of the Married Man, so I didn't do it then ... And then I went into The Upside of Anger, and it became too long, you know? And I owned it, and had lost all this money on it ... and I ultimately sat down one day and re-wrote the whole script. And I called it The Multinationals and really started over, and I thought "Okay, I want to do this without me and without Janeane (Garofalo) and maybe still with Rickman; I want to re-cast it and start over." And when I went back to the people who wanted to buy it, they wanted the rights, to do that, and I couldn't give those rights away. ...
Cinematical: Couldn't or wouldn't?
MB: I wouldn't. So I kinda put it back up on the shelf, with a couple over things I'd made over the years that I've never released, sadly. And I started to get so many e-mails, and actually an online petition, which you can find if you look for it - pretty out there -- and these people got 3,000, 4,000 signatures, and they kept adding more and more, bombarding us with e-mails to release it – primarily absolute Rickman fans; he's got the most loyal, rabid fans and it's just amazing.
Cinematical: And well deserved.
MB: Absolutely; he's the best in the world, and he was wonderful to work with; he's a great guy. I'm one of 'em (Rickman fans). I put it in the Westwood International Film Festival about two years ago as a last-minute thing – the guy needed a film, I put it up there, and we put an announcement on my website ... and the place was packed! So I did a Q&A afterwards, and I asked 'Where are you all from?" and they were yelling out: "Chicago!" "Denver!" "Dallas!" "England!" (And I asked) "So why are you here?" "To see this movie!" These people flew all across the country and some form England to see the movie, and they said "We want it on DVD!" And I said "It's not out yet – but if you flew here, and you really did fly here, come see me at the end and I'll burn you a copy of the DVD and give it to you ..."
Cinematical: Which is not really the best business model to make back your investment ...
MB: No, but I did give away bout 40 that night; we took people's addresses, burned them all and sent them away. And that wasn't enough; so I finally just said, "Look, let's put it together ourselves. ..." And I've always wanted to put together a site to sell my movies and there's a book I'm coming out with (Crafting the Comedy: The Screenwriter) that I want to sell myself, so we did it; we found this place that make Porn DVDs that was looking to go legitimate, and they made us a great deal, and they burned them. And I had a thousand made, and we ship them – guys at my editing room are stacked with boxes, we do it with Google checkout. ...
Cinematical: Was it kind of daunting going from thinking about making the movie to thinking of selling it, or was it more a case of just throwing up your hands and saying "Someone's gotta put this out; it might as well be me."?
MB: No, it was fun; it's an experiment; one day I want to have a big-ass pipeline going right through the ground to the people that want to buy my movies, and I'm thinking that if I jam a wire into the ground now, then I'll know which direction to dig (later).
Cinematical: What was the biggest surprise for you in this whole process – running www.thefreebird.com, getting the site up and running to sell the film ...?
MB: More work than I thought it was going to be ... that's my biggest surprise; there's a new obstacle every day, and I've been pleasantly surprised how happy people are with the movie; the people that get them, they write us back and they're happy, they tell their friends and their friend buy it ... did you ever read the book The Long Tail? I believe in the Long Tail, and I think this is a great example of the Long Tail; I believe this movie will be up on this site forever, and slowly, one day, it'll sell a whole boatload of copies. It's the Long Tail; people will buy it ... and maybe people will copy it, and steal it, but you could do that with albums, in the old days; I believe that good word of mouth is the true essence of the Long Tail.
Cinematical: And also, is the possibility of it being stolen more scary than the possibility of it just being not seen?
MB: You're absolutely right.
Cinematical: When you were mention earlier that you were thinking about remaking the movie and re-casting with people other than you and Ms. Garofalo in the lead roles – that was a depressing thought, because you and Ms. Garofalo are so great together in this movie – you're completely plausible as a married couple with plenty of affection and plenty of tension. Was that the first chance you two had to work together?
Cinematical: How did that come about? Did you call her; did she come into read, were you friends?
MB: I just called her; we had kind of one of those mutual admiration societies; we'd see each other and go "I like your work," and I called her and said "Do you want to do it?" and she said "Yeah, I like the script. ..." Same thing with Rickman; I showed him The Sex Monster, and he liked it ...
Cinematical: And the weird thing is that you've got Alan Rickman, one of the most classically trained actors of our time, who's done serious work in serious dramas .... And you've got him running around taking leaks on the furniture. (Binder laughs.) Is that the old cliché that if you want someone to be really funny, get a classically trained actor?
MB: I think so; I think he was just dying to tear up the scenery and the furniture, let alone pee on it.
Cinematical: What was the process of working with Rickman like? Is he someone who has a lot of discussions with and notes for the director, or is he just someone who sits back and goes with your vision?
MB: He's wonderful. I'll tell you: I was scared at first. I told my brother (and producer, Jack Binder) "This guy's gonna be tough; he seems kind of cranky and cantankerous and a bit curmudgeonly in the meetings. ..." And he was nothing like that; he was the warmest, sweetest gentlemen I'd ever worked with in my life. To this day, the two smartest actors I've ever worked with are him and Don Cheadle. He would come to work, and his script was dog-eared, there were notes on empty sides of the pages, on every page. He had questions about everything; he would drive you crazy with questions, but they were amazing questions.
Cinematical: You're in England, you're shooting a movie with what's essentially your own money; did you ever find yourself thinking "Maybe I've set the bar too high?" Did you think that it might have been easier to shoot a movie that wasn't in set England?
MB: Well, we got a tax break ...
Cinematical: And did that make up for working in a different time zone, with a different currency, different unions? Was it overall, as annoying as making a movie in America, or were there new layers of difficulty?
MB: It's hard to say, because I'm a pure Anglophile and I had shot there before, and I just loved the crews. ...
Cinematical: You didn't have to translate American-to-English that often?
MB: No, and just love it over there. I love shooting over there. And this movie, it was really kind of a cool thing – because we found this office building right off Russell Square, actually where the 7/7 bombing was --- and the building was being renovated at the time; they were about to renovate it 8 months up the road. And in the building, it had a bank; it had a nightclub; it had offices. It had this wood paneled floor that we turned into the hotel room – the only thing we didn't have was a golf course, so we built a driving course on the roof. ...
Cinematical: ... and just shot everything in that one building?
MB: Everything in that one building, and around that building; the exteriors were just around that building, all in the Holburn area. And it made it really easy, and everybody had a dressing room on one floor, and then we'd go upstairs, and the actual office, Martin Johns our production designer built it and he did a hell of a job, and the office was kind of inspired by the office building in The Apartment, the Billy Wilder movie, with the see-through windows, and he built it on an empty floor. It was great; it was like we had a little backlot. "Today we're in the basement." "Today we're on the roof." We never had trucks or ... we were able to do it for such a great price for that reason. And it made it fun; I had this place in Knightsbridge, and I was able to walk to work; a 40-minute walk in the morning, and a 40-minute walk at night. I'll tell you, it was one of the happiest times in my life.
Cinematical: Looking at your work – with The Mind of the Married Man, with The Search for John Gissing, with Man About Town ... you have a real interest in this type of corporate culture. And having been in show business for a number of years, do you feel disconnected form that world? Do you feel like you can write about international mergers, or at least well enough to fake it? What keeps you coming back to that corporate world?
MB: I like that whole – first of all, I've never been part of it; part of me's a little jealous of it, that camaraderie; it's kind of like high school and college goes on forever, being part of a big company. But also for me, it's a great world for comedy, because it's just another extension of the family – you've go the parents and the kids and the troublemakers, the neighbors. ...
Cinematical: Plus fairly high stakes and fairly big egos. ...
MB: And to me, what interests me, and why I would want to do a next version of this, is the idea of these huge companies just ... swallowing each other up and all these people all around the world just being thrown to this place and thrown to that place and transferred here and transferred there and another bigger company comes and swallows that one up .. and the people start to mean nothing. The companies are so big that you buy them up and you don't realize that it's 10,000 lives you've bought.
Cinematical: Was part of self-releasing The Search for John Gissing a reaction to Lionsgate sending Man About Town straight to video?
MB: No; it had nothing to do with that; I don't care what Lionsgate did with Man About Town; I knew that was gonna happen the day I even heard they were circling it, and they told me they weren't going to, and they did ... I was working on (self-releasing The Search for John Gissing) before then.
Cinematical: Does theatrical distribution even matter anymore? Is it as imperative?
MB: I think it kind of is; especially the kind of movies that I make, in a way , it's an advertisement for the home video version of the movie. I mean, I have a big-screen plasma TV, and I love to watch movies at home. I love to go out; I saw Hairspray this weekend, and I took my kid to Transformers ... but I can understand why, especially with movies like I make, someone going "Okay, it's got Kevin Costner and Joan Allen .. I'll wait and buy this, or rent it. ..." And I love to buy DVDs; I love to own them; and I figure my wife and I now, it's $10 each to go to a movie down here, and the DVD's 20 bucks .. I'll just wait, I'll own that one. But I won't buy it if it didn't come out and I hadn't heard about it first. ...
Cinematical: So theatrical release has become the way of kick-starting the Long Tail.
MB: On some movies. But really, self- releasing The Search for John Gissing had nothing to do with Man About Town. What really happened to me is my long-standing dream – and what I'm trying to get to – is the point where I have my own resources, my own fund of money, to make a movie I wanna make every year, the way I want to make it, with the actors I want to make it with – and it somehow is a viable business, and every year I get to make a movie and then I make the next one. And some are singles, and some are doubles, and somewhere along the road, maybe I'll even hit a triple. But it's a real business. And through a combination of a lot of different ancillaries and stuff, it's a real business and I don't have to get in line for this week's actor; I just work with really good actors. And that's what more interesting to me than anything – to work with the Joan Allens and the Chris Coopers and the Don Cheadles and Kevin Costners of the world . That's what I want to do, that's what I want to dedicate it all to: to figure out some way to make a manageable comedy, to tell a manageable story at a price where I don't really need some corporation to let me do that; so, this is all kind of baby steps to getting me there.